Accessible Online Course Design

Award Winner: 
2014 Sloan-C Effective Practice Award
Author Information
Dr. Mary C. Zatta, Robin J. Sitten
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
Perkins eLearning, Perkins School for the Blind
Effective Practice Abstract/Summary
Abstract/Summary of Effective Practice: 

Perkins eLearning has grown in just a few short years from a small number of webcasts developed and posted in 2007 to a major initiative that is fulfilling our mission to be a leading source of online professional development and networking for teachers and parents supporting children and students who are blind or visually impaired. Since the inception of our program it has been our mission to provide online professional development opportunities that are accessible to individuals with disabilities.

Description of the Effective Practice
Description of the Effective Practice: 

As we have grown from a small number of on-demand webcasts to our current catalog of self-paced tutorials, and instructor-led courses, we have identified an approach to course design that insures accessibility beyond the current legal standard regarding html, scripts, or plug-ins. Our practice considers accessibility for all types of learning styles, physical abilities, and language proficiencies in the design of course objectives, content, and assignments as well as usability. The effectiveness of this practice has made us a leading source of online professional development and networking for teachers and parents supporting children and students who are blind or visually impaired. Today, Perkins eLearning logs over 200,000 visitors per year and offers over 170 content offerings.

Amongst the professionals working in the field of visual impairment, a notable percentage of individuals working in the field are visually impaired themselves. Our efforts toward providing an accessible platform were, by necessity, the foundation of our planning from the outset and not a later revision of our teaching efforts. Our course development practice (using a specifically-configured Moodle platform) emphasizes creating a course that is accessible in design to any and all participants, and provides instructors with a fully-accessible interface for instruction and evaluation. In our efforts toward providing an accessible platform of professional development activities and instructional resources, we have used the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) as our “North Star” as opposed to the minimal guidelines outlined in Section 508.

Supporting Information for this Effective Practice
Evidence of Effectiveness: 

Incorporating the principles of Universal Design, Perkins eLearning has developed a platform whose baseline is accessible to a range of learning styles, abilities, technical proficiency, etc. Although our primary goal was to meet the needs of professionals with visual impairments, we have found that our platform has also been utilized by learners with hearing impairments, learning disabilities, and primary languages other than English.

How does this practice relate to pillars?: 

The primary pillar addressed by this practice is Access. As noted above, Perkins eLearning exceeds the current legal standard of Sect 508 compliance by setting as our standard Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. WCAG was developed by W3C to define web accessibility that is perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.
Unlike most online learning institutions, Perkins eLearning creates course frameworks and posts all content on behalf of our instructors in order to insure accessibility, including quality assurance for captioning/description considerations and screenreader testing.

In addition, an emphasis on course accessibility and universal design addresses the pillars in the following ways:
Perkins eLearning has been endorsed for its Learning Effectiveness by Fitchburg State University (Fitchburg, MA) which includes our coursework in its Graduate and Continuing Education catalog. We have submitted 75% of our instructor-led courses to FSU for graduate credits; 100% of our submissions have been approved by that institution. In addition, Perkins eLearning has received a letter of support from the Academy for Certification of Vision and Rehabilitation Professionals (ACVREP)

"In addition to the quality of Perkins’ educational programming, I am greatly impressed with Perkins’ commitment to professional learners. Taking the needs of all learners in account and continually researching and developing resources, Perkins has implemented innovative means to provide meaningful educational and training opportunities to a wide variety of learners that supports convenience of schedule and, most importantly, accessible given specific learner needs. Speaking on the issue of accessibility, Perkins’ commitment to learner accessibility is second to none. In fact, I have received many unsolicited comments from ACVREP certified professionals, many of whom are blind or visually impaired, informing me that they found the educational resources provided by Perkins to be fully accessible with many reporting that the learning activities provided by Perkins were the best they have experienced in their professional careers." Garett Holm, President ACVREP

We are also certified providers for the American Speech and Hearing Association (ASHA) and the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA).

Perkins eLearning has been engaged in discussion with Harvard University and Boston University related to their needs for developing accessible online classes. In particular, Harvard has recently engaged Perkins eLearning in a discussion about providing 1) an assessment of their online platform and 2) training in accessible course design.
Scale is provided through Moodle, an open-source learning platform which Sloan Consortium has recognized as “the best Learning Management System they’ve used.” Beginning with a pilot program of 10 learners in a single course, we have grown in 2 years to a year-round program of quarterly sessions and a participant base of 400 registrations. Nearly 20% of these enrollments are returning students.

We are able to provide most considerations for accessibility, including captioning and audio description, in-house. We have developed guidelines to educate our instructors in methods they can incorporate into their course development to ensure that accessibility guidelines are met. As a result, we have increased the knowledge base and capacity of the instructors regarding accessible course design.

Satisfaction is expressed by our learning community in formal and informal ways, both solicited and volunteered. All feedback is used to improve our courses on an ongoing basis. Faculty have eagerly provided repeat sessions of their courses, and expanded their content into other formats, such as self-paced tutorials, which they design. One recent faculty member praised the helpfulness of our session mapping approach, which provides structural supports for course design, and “the beautiful job Perkins did putting this course together.”

Student Satisfaction is measured at the conclusion of each course via survey. Surveys are sent to each participant after the grades are posted in an effort to obtain authentic feedback. In addition, we receive ongoing unsolicited feedback from course participants, describing our format as “user-friendly,” and full of alternatives, such as using an iOS device with Voiceover when they are away from their screenreaders.

We have one staff member who is dedicated to provide technical assistance and support to participants and instructors. Issues reported to the eLearning helpdesk are generally resolved within 24 hours. This support includes accessibility assistance as well.

Equipment necessary to implement Effective Practice: 

Simple web-camera or digital cameras (including iOS devices) are sufficient for recording presentations and demonstrations to use in learning modules. Most instructors have the proficiency to record these demonstrations themselves from their location and share them with Perkins eLearning through a shared Dropbox directory.
Recommended software and learning platforms: Moodle, Adobe PDF Writer/Reader, Dropbox, Vimeo/YouTube, Camtasia Studio

Estimate the probable costs associated with this practice: 

Estimated costs for production are embedded in faculty salaries. Instructor costs are covered by the tuition for each class.
Additional costs include engagement of The Learning Curve Consortium for Moodle support and hosting services; file sharing services including Vimeo, Dropbox, and YouTube; and Media production software from Camtasia and Adobe Connect.

References, supporting documents: 

American Foundation for the Blind,

Ascough, Richard S. "Designing for online distance education: Putting pedagogy before technology." Teaching Theology & Religion 5.1 (2002): 17-29.

Burgstahler, Sheryl. "Universal design of distance learning." Information Technology and Disabilities 8.1 (2002).

Council for Exceptional Children, Teaching Exceptional Children. Special Education: Ready for Cyberspace [Special Issue] 46,5 (May/June 2014).

Hansen, R. (2009) Testing Moodle for Accessibility

Pearson, Elaine J., and Tony Koppi. "Inclusion and online learning opportunities: designing for accessibility." Research in Learning Technology10.2 (2002).

Winke, Paula, Susan Gass, and Tetyana Sydorenko. "The effects of captioning videos used for foreign language listening activities." Language Learning & Technology 14.1 (2010): 65-86.

World Wide Web Consortium (W3C),

Contact(s) for this Effective Practice
Effective Practice Contact: 
Mary C. Zatta, Ph.D.
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Effective Practice Contact 2: 
Robin J Sitten
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